The artist’s inflatable Taj Mahal is on display at NGC
“I mean the real question is, why should you give anything back?” said Divya Mehra, the 2022 recipient of the Sobey Art Award — the largest art prize for contemporary Canadian artists.
Cultural reappropriation is central to Mehra’s work as she fights against the lingering impact of colonial dispossession.
A small bag filled with sand sits in the MacKenzie Art Gallery. Mehra named it after a line from an Indiana Jones movie: “there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away.” The sandbag replaces a statue that Mehra found in the gallery of Annapurna, the Hindu goddess of food and nourishment. When traced to its acquisition, the statue was originally stolen from India by Canadian politician Norman Mackenzie.
The artist, unafraid to confront colonial practices of theft, carries out cultural restoration, returning the statue to its original country.
Meanwhile, at the National Gallery of Canada, Mehra’s installation is a perplexing bouncy castle-like representation of the Taj Mahal. Her construction of this monumental structure is plastic and artificial. It gives the structure a sense of playfulness and as the viewer walks by, they are forced to explore and criticize western fascinations of India through this symbolic work of architecture.
Mehra’s artwork evokes introspection and confusion. Her exploration of cultural identity is special because she initially puzzles the viewer, while simultaneously conveying the critical nature of her work. The sandbag is small but feels heavy in its isolation within the gallery’s four walls; the Taj Mahal structure is green and loud, but untouchable.
The art museum itself is an institution with colonial history. Oftentimes it represents colonial wealth and the power to take what isn’t theirs. The display of stolen artifacts was precisely what categorized colonized people and cultures as the Other. Cultural creations no longer represented their authentic purpose, rather they became objects of fascination for the colonizers. They were something to be contemplated for their “oriental” abnormality within the silent white walls of the European institutions in which they were placed.
But, Mehra recycles the art museum as an institution for putting colonial practices on display, setting them out to be the true abnormality. Rather, in Mehra’s postcolonial vision, the museum becomes a mechanism for reclaiming culture.
The Sobey Art Award 2022 Exhibition is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until March 12, 2023.